Craig Cathcart’s catharsis now complete
It was after 11pm on Monday night at the Belfast Telegraph Sports awards in the Ramada Plaza Hotel. Craig Cathcart had returned to his table and gazed at his trophy with a real sense of pride. So too his dad, sitting beside him.
The inscription read: George Best Breakthrough Award. And there, underneath, was Craig's name. For any Northern Ireland footballer, winning a prize named after Bestie goes down as pretty special.
Better still if you are a youngster steeped in the traditions of Manchester United.
“It's fantastic to be given an award like this, with George Best's name attached to it. As everyone knows he was the greatest,” says Cathcart, who grew up as a Red Devils fan, and thanks to his talent being spotted early was invited into United's School of Excellence as a teenager.
This was going to be another kid plucked from Northern Ireland who would go on and become a first team star at Old Trafford.
Just like, say Jonny Evans, who Craig played with many times as youngsters in Rathcoole. Like Evans, Cathcart did the whole going out on-loan thing, encouraged by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Starting in 2007 he played for Royal Antwerp in Belgium, Plymouth and then Watford. He impressed in every spell and any time he returned to United was on Fergie's radar because he made the bench several times.
The dream start for United never came though and in the summer Cathcart was faced with the biggest decision of his career.
He could hang in there at United and hope his time would come, go out on-loan again or sign for newly promoted Blackpool, whose eccentric and extrovert boss Ian Holloway had made it plain that he wanted Cathcart for his side's Premier League survival bid.
Cathcart decided his future was orange, or Tangerine, and joined Blackpool on the same week that just about every pundit in the land was tipping Holloway's side for relegation and embarrassment.
Blackpool and Holloway have proved many wrong. The Bloomfield Road outfit play attractive football, have secured some sensational results and are currently mid-table.
And Cathcart, a 21-year-old who is a credit to his family with his mannerly and easy going nature, has played a major role in that, clocking up the appearances at centre-back.
“Looking back I have no regrets at all about leaving Manchester United,” said Cathcart.
“Obviously United was my club, I'd been there since I was a kid, but I wanted to be playing regular football and when Ian Holloway offered me that in the Premier League at Blackpool, I couldn't turn it down.
“I'm glad that I made the choice I did because it's been fantastic at Blackpool so far. I've played in most of the matches and feel I'm becoming a better player,” added Craig, who rates Arsenal the best team he has faced this season and Manchester City's Carlos Tevez as his most testing opponent.
The best result for Blackpool so far was at Anfield in October when the visitors won 2-1, stunning the Kop and starting Roy Hodgson on the road that led to the sack.
Kenny Dalglish has come in, but Cathcart believes that, even allowing for the return of the King, another incredible result is possible when the sides meet again this evening.
“We really fancy making it a tough game for Liverpool,” said Cathcart, who cheered on Linfield as a child — his favourite players were Glenn Ferguson and Chris Morgan.
“We beat them at Anfield earlier in the season which was a massive result and now we'll be aiming to do the same against them at our place.
“Kenny Dalglish has given Liverpool a lift, but our manager feels we can cope with that and will want us to go for it. As a United fan going to Anfield and winning was great. Doing the double over Liverpool would be even better.”
Cathcart, who made his Northern Ireland debut last year performing superbly out of position at left-back in the Euro 2012 qualifying victory in Slovenia, is set to go head-to-head with the out-of-sorts Fernando Torres tonight. Maybe if Torres showed the commitment and attitude displayed by Cathcart, the Spaniard would have more success.
Holloway has loved seeing his summer signing blossom in the Premier League. In turn Cathcart is relishing playing under the man whose quips and quotes are becoming legendary.
“What you see is what you get with the manager,” says the defender. “He certainly doesn't put on an act for the cameras. He is exactly like you see him on TV. Full of passion with lots of things to say.
“He's been great for me and he's been great for Blackpool. And I think he's been great for the Premier League.”